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A Tale of Tony Smith

His massive sculpture undergoes a carefully orchestrated conservation treatment
July 27, 2016
Tony Smith

Shelley Reisman Paine Conservator of Objects

“Almost everything in the man-made environment, and even in much of nature, is regulated by the axes of length, breadth, and height. The elements from which many of these pieces are made have more axes, and the forms developed from them move in unexpected ways.” 

—Tony Smith, exhibition brochure, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968

Tony Smith (foreground) in his studio


Seven tons and eleven feet high, Tony Smith’s two-part sculpture Source (1971) was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2001. Originally located on the south lawn, the sculpture was moved to Wade Oval to avoid the dangers of the current construction project. Last fall, after years of exposure to the outdoor environment, it was conserved and reinstalled on the museum’s north lawn. Its black planes provide an incredible counterpoint to the narrow horizontal stone bands that define the building, and its seemingly simple black form interacts dynamically with all that surrounds it, creating the integrated spatial outcome that Smith desired. Achieving Smith’s intentions for color, gloss, and installation was a complicated conservation project requiring collaboration with many skilled individuals in and outside of the museum.

American artist Tony Smith (1912–1980)—sculptor, painter, architect, and teacher—is best known for his oversize steel sculpture based on tetrahedrons and octahedrons and imagined within an invisible, three-dimensional lattice. Smith’s sculpture, developed from painting and architecture, is deeply rooted in concepts of symmetry and mathematics. His interest in these forms began in childhood, when he spent many years living with tuberculosis in a single-room outbuilding behind his parents’ home. To occupy his time, the isolated boy studied, dreamed, and fashioned small medicine boxes into buildings. Smith later designed his own sculpture by constructing maquettes from small cardboard geometric shapes. While dismantling the maquette for Gracehoper (a 1962 work commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Art), Smith created maquettes for two other sculptures, Moses (now at the Toledo Museum of Art) and Source. Incredibly, Gracehoper, Moses, and Source, all produced from a single design, are now within a short three-hour drive.

By 2010, Source required repainting: the sculpture’s former dull, semi-gloss black surface was now damaged from the rigors of an outdoor environment and from visitors sitting on the work and accidentally scratching the paint. As with all conservation projects, understanding and respecting the artist’s intention was essential before treatment began. Throughout the process there were many discussions with Sarah Auld, director of the Tony Smith Estate, and with CMA curator of contemporary art Paola Morsiani about the sculpture’s condition and the methods and materials for its conservation. Auld confirmed that the estate required a dull, semi-gloss paint to emulate Smith’s original selection and an installation to make the massive sculpture appear to float over the grass. While a uniformly painted black surface may seem like a straightforward goal, it is very difficult to achieve and sustain on an outdoor sculpture. Even the paint that Smith originally used was fragile outdoors, changing color and gloss quickly. While new high-tech paints offer improved durability and permanence, they have a higher gloss. The estate concluded that a slightly higher gloss was acceptable to offset the need to frequently repaint the sculpture. The next task was to apply it carefully to achieve the surface that Smith intended.




James Sejd of ASCo in Manassas, Virginia, was selected as the paint contractor. ASCo had painted many Smith sculptures and was aware of the particular need for an evenly painted and durable surface. To avoid weather-related complications, the sculpture was moved to a warehouse for repainting. It was rigged to a crane with straps and its two parts lifted onto a flatbed truck under the supervision of David Ricupero of Norris Brothers and CMA art handler Joe Blaser. Once Source arrived at the warehouse, ASCo washed the sculpture—still on the truck—and began to repair damaged areas of paint. Layers of loose corrosion on the interior also were removed. The parts were then taken into the warehouse and lifted carefully off the truck using two stout forklifts that worked in unison to place them on sets of steel risers.

Preparing the sculpture’s surfaces for the paint took many days. Once primed, portions of the sculpture were painted, then evaluated. Ultimately, a combination of perseverance and refinement of technique prevailed, and Smith’s desired appearance was achieved. The next challenge was to return the sculpture to the museum without damaging its newly painted surfaces. Though the paint is durable, strapping Source to the truck for its return would inevitably leave marks in the finish. Instead, steel channel was bolted to the sculpture’s underside; straps attached to forklifts then lifted the channel and sculpture onto the flatbed. Staff dug trenches at the installation site to provide a space for the steel channel when the sculpture was lowered by crane onto new concrete piers. The channel was then removed and the trenches filled.


Source in Warehouse


Preparation of the site was fundamental to the sculpture’s preservation and to retaining the integrity of the artist’s concept for its installation. Sprinklers were adjusted and the land graded to direct water away from the work. The new foundation included eight precisely formed and positioned piers to create the appearance of a floating sculpture. The area underneath the sculpture was also contoured and covered with a material that will keep the interior as dry as possible to inhibit corrosion. The surrounding grass will be carefully clipped to prevent damage by landscaping equipment.

The project was funded in part by the Kelly grant and the Luce grant, with additional support from the museum. The treatment called for close collaboration among many, including the Tony Smith Estate’s Sarah Auld; ASCo’s James Sejd, Jeff Atwell, and Raul Herrera; David Ricupero and his team from Norris Brothers; and, from the museum, Paola Morsiani, Joe Blaser, Mike Mirwald, Tom Catalioti, Tom Hornberger, Samantha Springer, Joan Neubecker, and Marcia Steele. On your next visit to the museum, be sure to walk around Source and witness the results of this major conservation project. 


Source restored

“It would take many lines to explain why I consider Courbet’s The Source of the Loue to be so uniquely related to Abstract Expressionist painting, but I do associate it with the work of my late friends. Anyhow, when I saw my sculpture, I thought of this great flood gushing from the rock face.” 

—Tony Smith, provided by the Tony Smith Foundation


Cleveland Art, July/August 2011